Why Russia is a hostile power

This first appeared in The Washington Post.

After we learned that Donald Trump Jr. said he would "love" to receive campaign help from the Russian government, it was pointed out that Russia is a hostile power. What does that mean? The answer has a lot to do with what Russian President Vladimir Putin stood to gain by interfering in the United States' 2016 presidential election.

"Hostile" doesn't mean Russia and the United States are about to go to war. In theory, their interests shouldn't even diverge all that much. They are two continental powers on opposite sides of the world with no territorial disputes. They share a fear of Islamist terrorism.

What makes Russia hostile is Putin's adherence to, and dependence on, values that are antithetical to what were, at least until now, bedrock American values. He favors spheres of influence over self-determination; corruption over transparency; and repression over democracy. His antipathy toward Hillary Clinton was based on her advocacy of values that would threaten his rule.

It's sometimes hard for Americans to understand the gulf between the two nations because Putin has maintained the trappings of democracy — a parliament, national elections —even as he has made them meaningless by shuttering most independent media and eliminating most political opposition. The state now serves Putin and his cronies, who have become immensely wealthy. When people try to expose the corruption, they are imprisoned or killed. When Putin stakes out any position, the first question on his mind is not "Is this good for Russia?" but "Will this help my regime to survive?"

When Ukraine, which like Russia was part of the Soviet Union, started to move in a more democratic direction, Putin felt threatened. First, a democratic Ukraine would not be as open to plunder as one ruled by oligarchs; second, if a democratic Ukraine prospered, it might give ordinary Russians dangerous ideas. Clinton, as secretary of state and after, supported Ukraine's democratic aspirations. Putin invaded, seized part of its territory and initiated an ugly civil war that helps keep Ukraine from prospering.

It may be true that Putin's hacking and fake-news campaign began as an effort simply to damage Clinton's reputation or to make the democratic process look ugly. But along the way, Putin must have realized that Donald Trump's policies aligned with his values more than he could have dared expect from any American candidate. Trump disparaged democratic allies and alliances while expressing admiration for dictators. He appeared willing to mingle private business with public duties while elevating family members. At home, he echoed Putin in his cynical disparagement of a free press, his celebration of violence at his rallies, and his ugliness toward Muslims, Mexicans and others he portrayed as outsiders.

So while the younger Trump may have seen advantage in accepting Russia's help, Russia certainly would have seen an advantage in proffering it. Putin's values are antithetical to American values, but the Russian dictator had good reason to hope that they would not be antithetical to the values of a Trump administration.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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